Innovation Networks ...

... to advance teaching and learning.


December 17, 2015

I have been noticing lately that there are more job postings in Inside Higher Ed for leadership of institutional or system-wide initiatives in “academic innovation”, “innovation in education” or similar labels. Two recent reports have surveyed the emergence of these innovation initiatives: one prepared for the American Council on Education by the Huron Consulting Group and one from the Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation in the University System of Maryland. (My colleague Tony Bates highlighted the latter report in his widely-read weblog on online learning – you should consult Tony’s post for some of the implications of these innovation centers for distance and continuing education.)

These two reports each discuss similar pressures on higher education institutions and systems, and each makes the case for a new “interdisciplinary innovation infrastructure” in response to those pressures. In tandem, the reports cover a good diversity of developments around these emerging structures: 

  • networks of institutions sharing in innovation efforts
  • senior level ‘connector and catalyst for innovation’ positions within institutions,
  • institutional centers with a specific innovation mandate  (although neither mentions the Sandbox Collaborative at Southern New Hampshire)
  • mergers of traditional teaching support centers with more innovative market-driven units. (For example, Tony rightly notes in his post that some continuing education units have been outstanding innovators outside the mainstream of academic operations).

Both reports also consider academic innovation units at the institutional level as well as those that foster collaborations across a system or network of institutions. We’ll explore in this post some key points to consider for a network or system of institutions collaborating on exploration, experimentation and exploitation of innovations in teaching and learning. Tomorrow’s post will consider the development of educational innovation units within individual institutions, and in particular how that role relates to the more traditional roles of a teaching support center.

Think Primarily about the Innovation Network (not the Center/Hub/Incubator that Supports It)
Keeping up with developments in teaching with online learning has been one area where multiple forms of network collaborations have flourished, and many of these include joint exploration of innovations. Within public higher education systems, there are a variety of organizational models – the Open SUNY Center for Online Teaching Excellence and the multiple initiatives led by the California State University’s Academic Technology Services illustrate two different ways to structure the network collaborations and the central network support hub.

What seems to be common across the effective state-wide collaborations I’ve seen in online learning is an evolution of a Shared Services Network model in which needs analysis, project development and provision of services are carried out collaboratively by units supporting faculty in teaching with online learning within the participating institutions. (There are other models that emphasize either ‘centralized services’ with most activity happening in a central hub or ‘distributed services’ with various institutions assigned an ongoing specialized role, but either of these can lack a strong ‘ground game’ where some of the local institutional service providers are detached from the organizational structure and don’t develop emotional ownership in the collaboration.  An evaluation of a distributed services approach to higher ed innovations in teaching and learning in England noted how it “limited how knowledge and practice could be shared and disseminated”.)

You can see a similar collaboration format in the way BCcampus engaged institutional partners in its Open Textbook Project and the way the University of Texas system’s Institute for Transformational Learning has structured its Competency-Based Learning initiative as a collaborative effort. Of course, the central support hub for the collaboration may take on a bigger role where there is a significant investment in technology development, as the UT system’s Total Educational Experience (TEX) project for mobile-first learning or the edX consortium’s work on Open edX.

Moving from a Shared Services Network to an Open Innovation Network
None of these collaborations would be successful without a network support center charged with  “helping members to collaborate with one another and developing strategic initiatives that aid the community as a whole…Facilitating collaborative relationships…differs from coordinating or orchestrating those relationships”.  I particularly like the way Maryland’s Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation emphasizes leadership at the institutional level with a lean supporting core. As a study of one collaborative Maryland project last year described the process and results: “a public university system can play a catalytic role in push­ing out change across the institutions…not by exercising top down authority but by initiating or helping to shape strategic initiatives across campuses”.

Plans prepared by other system-wide networks also include explicit mention of the need to go beyond coordination and infrastructure roles, for example “by acting as a catalyst, convener and capacity-builder for multi-stakeholder collaborations”.

Experimentation is messy, wasteful, and expensive. It has to be. That’s how it works. And it’s the only reliable source of real progress. I don’t think the choice is between safety and risk. It’s between certain decline and the possibility of tremendous improvement. But getting to the latter requires having the risk capital now to try new things. - Matt Reed, IHE Dean Dad weblog

This catalyst role illustrates the evolution of inter-institutional collaboration from a Shared Services Network model toward an Open Innovation Network model.  Whereas a Shared Services Network is driven by considerations of efficiency and specialized expertise, an Open Innovation Network is driven by the need to share the ‘risk capital’ ‒ both financial and political ‒ required for continuing experimentation and strategic innovation (as highlighted in Matt Reed’s comments in the sidebar).

An Open Innovation Network in the corporate world promotes the “pursuit of innovations across [organizational] boundaries through the sharing of ideas, knowledge, expertise, and opportunities” by enabling “a collective…pooling of their diverse and complementary resources to stimulate and accelerate innovation”.  Adaptations of this model of sharing innovation risk and reward are becoming more prominent in public-private sector partnerships, and some of the examples above – Open edX in particular – are already framed around the language of Open Innovation Networks.

Other Models in Network Collaborations for Innovation Support
There are other models of network collaboration to promote innovation in teaching and learning from which we can draw insight and inspiration.  The Enhancement Themes program in Scottish higher education illustrates another model for supporting innovation across a system of higher ed institutions, by identifying specific innovation areas for shared development across institutions system-wide. Each theme is typically a focus for support of inter-institutional collaboration over a period of one to three years and combines the dissemination of exemplary practices with exploration and experimentation of innovation. “The Themes encourage staff and students to share current good practice and collectively generate ideas and models for innovation in learning and teaching.” 

Eight themes have been completed since the program began in 2003, including Developing and Supporting the Curriculum (2011-2014), Graduates for the 21st Century (2008-2011), and Student Transitions (the current theme, 2014-2017). Evaluations of the Enhancement Themes program highlight the impact of network collaborations:

 “There is a strong belief that the Themes have added real value by encouraging a scholarly approach to key issues and by giving visibility to practitioner activity around learning and teaching…the underlying philosophy of continuous improvement, focused on particular issues, and shaped in a real way by the sector itself, enjoys a high and continuing level of support.”

Another way for a system-level agency to foster innovation is illustrated by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (Canada). The public college and universities sectors in the province have a highly distributed form, with considerable institutional autonomy ‒ and no central system office as in most U.S. states). The Council was set up as an independent public agency with a mandate to provide research-informed advice on policy to the government department with oversight and budgetary responsibilities for higher education.

However, in carrying out that focused mission much of HEQCO's research is undertaken through institutional consortia, on priority issues like Access & Retention and Learning Outcomes. This has a somewhat similar effect as the Enhancement Themes in Scottish higher education, bringing together institutions to share in collaborative innovation and knowledge mobilization on issues of high priority across the sector.

Finally, the Open edX example cited above reminds us that network collaborations for innovation support can occur outside the boundaries of a traditional higher education system. Another example is the  ‘Circuit Riders’ program amongst regional U.S. liberal arts colleges to offer a cooperative webinar service on new developments in online learning.  We can expect more evolution of both the system-sponsored networks and these ‘networks of peers’ collaborations as the challenges and opportunities facing our institutions continue to drive our innovation agenda. In tomorrow’s post in this column we’ll look more at innovation support at the institutional level, in particular at how the role of an innovation support center interacts with the needs of more traditional teaching support.

Thomas Carey is a Research Professor at San Diego State University and a Visiting Senior Scholar in the Office of the Provost at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. Some of the ideas in this post draw on Tom’s past projects with the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, the Council of Ontario Universities and the California State University Office of the Chancellor.


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